May Erlewine & The Motivations brought a soulful groove to Sonic Lunch


May Erlewine & the Motivations at Sonic Lunch

Photo by Leisa Thompson, courtesy of the Bank of Ann Arbor and Sonic Lunch.

Michigan singer-songwriter [|May Erlewine] is well known for her moving songwriting and expressive voice, generally showcased in a folk-country style with a slight pop edge. In recent months, though, she’s been working with more of a retro-soul sound -- and as everyone at Thursday’s [|Sonic Lunch] saw and heard, the shift in style suits her very well.

“This winter, things got so bad I decided I had to have some dance parties to get through it,” she told the crowd. And that’s what she did Thursday, with her sharp six-piece band, The Motivations, playing an hour and a quarter of irresistible, infectious grooves in a mix of Erlewine originals and soul classics.

The first half of the show leaned more heavily on her own songs, including a couple from [|The Little Things], an EP she released in November, recorded with The Motivations. (The band consists of Phil Barry and Eric Kuhn, guitars; Michael Shimmin, drums; Terrence Massey, trumpet; Mike Lynch, keyboard; and Max Lockwood, bass.)

“Let’s Get Real” was a disarming plea for honesty delivered in a smooth and rich neo-soul style. The memorable and touching “In a Year” offered some thoughts on “making the most of what we got right there in front of us,” as Erlewine put it.

She reached back into her past catalog for the similarly themed “Sweet Days,” noting, “This song is really dear to my heart.” The song reflects on the way time seems to speed up: “Count your blessings while you can, and take your loved ones by the hand,” she sang.

But if any of that comes across as melancholy, Thursday’s mood was anything but. She gave even the more introspective songs an upbeat and optimistic edge, helped immeasurably by the joyful sound of The Motivations.

May Erlewine & the Motivations at Sonic Lunch

Photo by Leisa Thompson, courtesy of the Bank of Ann Arbor and Sonic Lunch.

One other standout, which she did not specifically introduce, was a wry and clever song called “Hurry Up and Wait.” She mentioned a new album, Mother Lion, coming out in the fall, and if that song is any indication of what it will be like, it’s one to watch for.

The cover songs Erlewine chose brought more fun and funk to the show. “We’re going to kick it up here,” she remarked before the band broke into a raucous version of “C.C. Rider,” highlighted by a trumpet solo that might have come directly from New Orleans.

She thanked fans for their support with an irresistible take on Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” Guest vocalist Antwaun Stanley provided a moving guest vocal on The Impressions’ “People Get Ready.”

Erlewine slyly nailed the current political climate by dedicating “Mr. Big Stuff” to the current occupant of the White House. And she sent the audience back to their Thursday afternoons humming one final soul classic, “Express Yourself,” that served well as the theme for a great show.

Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and

May Erlewine will play an [|album release show for "Mother Lion" on Oct. 21 at The Ark]. [|Sonic Lunch], sponsored by Bank of Ann Arbor, continues through August each noon at Liberty Plaza, at the corner of Liberty and Division streets in Ann Arbor. Next up: The Stellars and Jacob Sigman.